Today I present another extract from my new book EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October. Click here to preorder your copy
Bryant & May Factory, Bow
The Oscroft family ran a cycle shop opposite the church in Bow and lived nearby. As the only daughter, Grace Oscroft (1903-72) was expected to keep house for her parents and three brothers upon leaving school at fourteen.
Two of Grace’s brothers were considered to have artistic talent and when, in her early twenties, she accompanied her younger brother John to classes at Bow & Bromley Institute, tutor John Cooper recognised her natural ability.
In later years, John Oscroft recalled that his sister Grace always had an inclination to draw but she only worked on pictures occasionally. Fellow artist Cecil Osborne offered a simple explanation for this, recalling that Grace would only ever “bring along a painting from time to time” and complained that her domestic duties granted her little opportunity for creative work.
As a consequence, Grace’s street scenes were of locations around Bow and she specialised in rooftop pictures that she could paint from the bedroom windows of the family home. In those days, Bow was heavily industrialised and John recalled that ‘the only blade of grass being in the churchyard.” Grace painted the factories and foundries that surrounded her. The most notable of these was the huge red brick Bryant & May factory that dominated Bow and it is impossible that Grace was unaware of the matchgirls’ 1888 strike which challenged the exploitative working conditions and suffering they endured from working with phosphorus
Although John did not show any pictures, remarkably Grace had five paintings in the East London Art Club exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1928 and, to further this success, her picture Garden in Bow was hung at the Tate Gallery the following year. The Evening Standard ran an article featuring Grace entitled, ‘East End Shopgirl Artists’ and the Westminster Gazette reported “Miss Oscroft, who in every day life sells bicycle parts, was surprised when she heard that Sir Joseph Duveen had bought her painting for £5 5s.” – although John denied Grace ever served in the cycle shop in Bow.
“It was my first original effort and I am greatly pleased. Mr Cooper had advised me to try something on my own,” declared Grace with understated pride. Subsequently, she contributed paintings to the East London Group shows at the Lefevere Galleries in 1930, 1931 and 1932. As evidence of Grace’s self-assurance and articulacy as an artist, Walter Steggles remembered her earning “sixpence a week pocket money by lecturing on pictures”
In 1935, the Oscrofts took over another cycle business in New Southgate. Grace lived independently there above the shop and although the family’s house in Bow was destroyed in the blitz, fortunately no-one was at home at the time.
After her brothers married and left home, Grace committed to caring for her mother who suffered with rheumatism. After the death of her mother, she took a variety of employment to support herself, as housekeeper to a doctor, despatch clerk at the Co-operative store in Edmonton and then in a glove factory. Grace remained single throughout her life, confessing in 1954, “I only ever had one sweetheart, but he was taken from me,” referring to Elwin Hawthorne who married Lilian Leahy.
She died in St Joseph’s Hospice, Hackney in 1972 and her death certificate recorded her occupation as ‘warehouse clerk (retired).’ The authority and accomplishment of Grace Oscroft’s few works are evidence of a significant talent that might have discovered fuller expression in different circumstances.
Grace Oscroft (bottom left), 1929
St Clement’s Hospital, Bow
Old Houses, Bow
The same view today
Paintings copyright © Estate of Grace Oscroft
With grateful thanks to David Buckman for the use of his research
Take a look at some of the other artists featured in East End Vernacular
John Allin, Artist
Pearl Binder, Artist
Roland Collins, Artist
Anthony Eyton, Artist
Doreen Fletcher, Artist
Barnett Freedman, Artist
Elwin Hawthorn, Artist
Rose Henriques, Artist
Dan Jones, Artist
Leon Kossoff, Artist
Jock McFadyen, Artist
Cyril Mann, Artist
Ronald Morgan, Artist
Peri Parkes, Artist
Henry Silk, Artist
Albert Turpin, Artist
This post first appeared on Spitalfields Life | In The Midst Of Life I Woke To, please read the originial post: here